After some years in the hinterland of North American evangelicalism, Calvinism is once again on the rise. (For a good synopsis of the trend see Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed (Crossway, 2008).) One of the reasons people become Calvinists is because Calvinism, we are told, upholds God's sovereignty. In particular, it upholds God's sovereignty much better than does Arminianism. But is this true? Let's take a closer look.
Let's begin with a rough and ready definition of sovereignty. For our purposes I offer a defintion of sovereignty by degree according to which one is sovereign to the degree that one is able to actualize states of affairs. In other words, the more states of affairs one is able to actualize, the more sovereign that individual is. (Sovereignty is here closely aligned with the concept of power.)
Consider a simple example. When you find a bandaid in your Big Mac you don't complain merely to the cashier but to the manager because you know that he has authority to rectify the stituation that the cashier does not. And if you're really perturbed you ignore the manager as well and instead begin a letter writing campaign directed straight at the head honcho: the CEO. The manager has more power and so is able to actualize more states of affairs than the cashier. (E.g. a refund on the burger.) And the CEO is likewise able to do more than the manager. (E.g. a large cash settlement.) As a result, the manager is more sovereign than the cashier, but the CEO is the most sovereign of all.
In this sense any agent is sovereign to the extent that he or she is able to actualize states of affairs. A baby has minimal sovereignty whilst the preisdent of the United States has a high degree of sovereignty (relative to other human agents at least).
Now obviously a good concept of God is one in which God is granted a high degree of sovereignty.(Whether and in what sense that sovereignty is maximal is a question for another day.) And herein lies the problem. Calvinists believe that Arminianism has a less than fully sovereign view of God because it limits his ability to actualize states of affairs. If the Calvinist believes God is the CEO, they believe the Arminians reduce him to a mere manager (while opens theists demote him to a lowly cashier, but that too is another story).
So what is the problem exactly? The issue relates to salvation. According to classic Arminianism, God cannot save all people. The reason is that Arminianism is predicated on the view that the elect (the set of people elected to salvation) is that group of people that God foreknows will choose him. In that sense, election is effectively out of God's hands. He can save no more and no less than the set of those people who choose to be saved by him. (This is not a completely fair characterization, at least insofar as an Arminianism avails herself of something called middle knowledge. But let's set that point aside for the present argument.)
By contrast, the Calvinist believes that God determines the actions of his free creatures. That is, God is the primary cause of some people choosing him and others rejecting him. It follows that contrary to Arminianism, God could save all people, but he chooses not to. And for this reason, Calvinists believe their view of God is more sovereign than the Arminian view.
Arminians often respond by charging the Calvinism with sacrificing God's love on the altar of his sovereignty. This is certainly a charge worth pursuing, but I want to consider another response here. Is it true that Calvinism rejects the Arminian view that God cannot save all?
Well it depends which Calvinists you ask. But the interesting thing is that reading Calvinists from John Calvinist himself to Jonathan Edwards and straight down to John Piper yields another conclusion: upon closer inspection it appears that God cannot save all people, a conclusion that places the Calvinist in the same boat as the Arminian.
How so? As John Piper has put it in his writings, God always acts so as to maximize his own glory. In other words, by his own nature God is constrained to actualize the state of affairs that will glorify him most fully. And the reason not all are saved is because this state of affairs - of some saved and others damned - is more glorifying to God than the state in which all are saved.
But then the problem follows: if God always acts to maximize his own glory and damning some maximizes his own glory, then God cannot save all because doing so would be to act against his own greatest glory.
In conclusion, God is no more sovereign on the Calvinist view (at least given the Calvin, Edwards, Piper theme noted above) than on the Arminian view. So the Calvinist surrenders God's omnibenevolent love whilst offering no higher a degree of sovereignty. And that seems to me to be a pretty poor deal.